Why You Should Surround Yourself With More Books Than You'll Ever Have Time to Read

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Public Library inside Shinsegae Mall in the heart of Seoul

Just as gazing at billions of stars in the night sky gives us a sense of humility and wonder, so too does being surrounded by books in our libraries.

Reading will make you more successfulhappier, and even healthier. But describing its impact in these terms alone does not do it justice. At its deepest level, it is spiritual.

The following passage from the Los Angeles Book Review of Umberto Eco's On The Shoulder Of Giants captures this sentiment more beautifully than I have ever seen done before. It also explains why this Japanese word exists...

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Any self-reflecting scholar sooner or later reaches a point where, for all her knowledge and understanding, she realizes the immensity of that which she can neither know nor understand. Indeed, the more insightful she is as a scholar, the more terrifying the dimensions of all that ignorance and incomprehension. Dwarfism is the natural condition of the scholar honest with herself. This revelation is often prompted by a very specific space: the library. Surrounded by shelf after heavy shelf of “giants,” we may feel crushed. Gradually, however, we become used to our crushed condition, and even attracted to the place; in time, our fascination with it grows and so does our compulsion to linger. We end up making the library our home, taking leave of the world. And before we know it, we end up in a seriously perverse relationship with the library. [...] For what the library tells you is not that there is that much to read, but that there are no limits as to how much there is to know. The essence of the library is its limitlessness. The more time you spend in it, the more you realize that no time could ever be enough; no matter how hard you strive, you will never know it all. The revelation of your finitude comes with embarrassing pain. And when you have realized that you cannot live without that pain, your perverse relationship with the library has reached its climax. If anything, we don’t devour books, we are devoured by them. What a library primarily offers is not learning, but a sense of profound existential disorientation. The function of the library is not to give you answers, but to overwhelm you with ever more questions. You may go to the library for enlightenment, but all you do is get lost. “The library is a great labyrinth, sign of the labyrinth of the world,” Brother William of Baskerville observes in The Name of the Rose. “You enter and you do not know whether you will come out.” You walk in glowing with self-confidence, enamored of books, and you come out — if you ever do — all in shatters, the shadow of your former self.

The Passage Gets At The Same Eternal Feeling Of Some Of Humanity's Great Quotes

"The soul should always stand ajar, ready to welcome the ecstatic experience."

—Emily Dickson

"All I know is that I know nothing."

—Socrates

"The more I read, the more certain I am that I know nothing."

—Voltaire

“Wisdom begins in wonder.”

—Socrates

The larger the island of knowledge, the longer the shoreline of wonder."

—Huston Smith

"Reading is the sole means by which we slip into another’s skin, another’s voice, another’s soul."

— Joyce Carol Oates

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”

—Voltaire

“So many books, so little time.”

—Frank Zappa

"Real knowledge is to know the extent of one's ignorance."

—Confucius

"With freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy?"

—Oscar Wilde

Just as there is something deeply human about looking into the eyes of another human, warming our body around a campfire, or hearing the sound of waves crashing on sand, there is something deeply human about being surrounded by the sheer size, beauty, and diversity of what the human experiment has discovered and written down so far.

I, for one, am grateful that I live in a time and in a body that I can experience Tsundoku on a daily basis.

If you want to read my best writing, I recommend reading my articles on Medium. I spend dozens of hours researching and writing each of those articles using the blockbuster approach.

Credits:

  • Always Narrating: The Making and Unmaking of Umberto Eco (full book review) by Costica Bradatan
  • Tsundoku visual by Jono Hey of Sketchplanations
  • Title from Jessica Stillman's great article
  • Special thanks to Emerson Spartz for sending me the book review passage